Somehow, Russian theater manages a happy ending

Actors savor freedom of post-Soviet struggle

October 21, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- For much of the past decade, Russian theater has been like an assembled company standing on stage in the glare of hot, bright lights, pelted by one tomato after another from a hostile house.

The "tomatoes" have been unfamiliar and lethal -- poverty, diminishing audiences and even unaccustomed freedom -- but they have had an extraordinary effect. Instead of darkening theaters from Moscow to Magnitogorsk, adversity has electrified many of them.

"It's Russia," says Anatoly E. Polyankin, director of Moscow's Satirikon Theater, laughing. "We keep saying it's bad and it will only get worse. Meanwhile, we're mobilizing, doing what we have to do."

Theaters have recruited banks and oil companies to sponsor performances as government subsidies from the halcyon days of Soviet support dried up. They rented space in their buildings to casinos; they studied the mysterious techniques of marketing, promotion and fund raising; one Siberian theater signed its cafe over to a family of restaurateurs in return for meals for its actors. And directors learned to pander to a growing desire for entertainment by staging Shakespeare, Moliere and Chekhov.

Despite numerous predictions, theaters have not closed. Instead, nearly 50 have opened. In 1993, according to the Ministry of Culture, Russia had 232 dramatic theaters; last year, there were 277. Overall, the number of theaters, including opera, ballet, puppet and youth, has increased from 427 to 496.

"Theater is very healthy today," says Natalya D. Staroselskaya, who edits a journal for the Russian Theater Union. "Not only has it survived last year's economic crisis, it has survived many, many years when everything was forbidden."

In Soviet times, theater was strictly controlled, but actors, directors and playwrights with enough daring pushed at the boundaries, cloaking forbidden criticisms or opinions in double meanings and subtle allusions. Audiences visited progressive theaters in search of truth and tiny wafts of freedom.

"In a way, the theater substituted for the church in the era of Communist domination," says Mikhail Kozakov, an enormously popular actor of the day. "Signals were sent out from the stage, and audiences understood them. People could read between the lines."

Kozakov remembers the exhilaration of reciting a few lines of Joseph Brodksy's forbidden poetry from the stage, even though he suffered for it later. He felt he was doing serious work if he could be punished for it.

Freedom and poverty

When it came, the long-awaited freedom brought some unhappy surprises. Actors were thrown into unaccustomed poverty as the economy withered, subsidies tapered off and truth reared up everywhere. Theaters floundered.

"After 1991, everything became possible, and theaters found themselves at a loss," Staroselskaya says. "Theaters turned to shocking their audiences, and performances were full of profanity and sex. That didn't last long. Audiences stopped going."

The new audiences wanted entertainment. But this is Russia, where the soul looms large. Let Americans flock to big-time Broadway musicals. Audiences here find escape in "Hamlet," one of the season's biggest hits.

Directors began to figure out that people wanted a satisfying emotional experience, the kind they could find in Shakespeare and other classics.

`Eternal problems'

"Their task was not to have something hidden behind the text but to stage a play written by a remarkable playwright, conveying eternal problems and feelings, and performed by talented actors," Staroselskaya says.

"The audience returned."

One of the most successful of Moscow's 75 dramatic theaters is the Satirikon, which occupies a slightly dreary, too-small building in a former movie theater. In a season full of hits, one of its biggest has been "Hamlet."

Konstantin Raikin, son of the legendary comic actor Arkady Raikin, who founded the theater, plays Hamlet. His charismatic leadership has made the Satirikon artistically dynamic. And Anatoly Polyankin, the energetic administrator, has made sure the hall's 1,000 seats are always full.

"We taught people how to sell tickets," Polyankin says. Even though they're expensive for Russians, tickets are snapped up. They range from 50 rubles (about $2) to 500 rubles ($20), which is the monthly salary of a teacher or doctor. Polyankin is especially proud that young theatergoers like the Satirikon.

"Many are attracted by our technical capabilities and by our young company, and many love Konstantin Raikin and can't live without him," Polyankin says. "While he's on stage, people are breathless."

Polyankin gestures hugely with his arms as he talks, pounding his desk with a look of pure delight as he insists that this is only the beginning for the 60-year-old Satirikon.

"We refuse to think that survival is enough," he says. "We want to grow better and better. I think we'll have a very good future. We're burning with desire. We make our plans. We fight. In art there is love for life, and that is reflected in everything we do."

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